Video Shows Earth-Penetrating Capability of B61-12 Nuclear Bomb

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By Hans M. Kristensen and Matthew McKinzie*

The capability of the new B61-12 nuclear bomb seems to continue to expand, from a simple life-extension of an existing bomb, to the first U.S. guided nuclear gravity bomb, to a nuclear earth-penetrator with increased accuracy.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) previously published pictures of the drop test from October 2015 that showed the B61-12 hitting inside the target circle but without showing the bomb penetrating underground.

But a Sandia National Laboratories video made available by the New York Times shows the B61-12 penetrating completely underground. (A longer version of the video is available at the Los Alamos Study Group web site.)

Implication of Earth-Penetration Capability

The evidence that the B61-12 can penetrate below the surface has significant implications for the types of targets that can be held at risk with the bomb. A nuclear weapon that detonates after penetrating the earth more efficiently transmits its explosive energy to the ground, thus is more effective at destroying deeply buried targets for a given nuclear yield. A detonation above ground, in contrast, results in a larger fraction of the explosive energy bouncing off the surface. Two findings of the 2005 National Academies’ study Effects of Earth-Penetrator and other Weapons are key:

“The yield required of a nuclear weapon to destroy a hard and deeply buried target is reduced by a factor of 15 to 25 by enhanced ground-shock coupling if the weapon is detonated a few meters below the surface.”

And

“Nuclear earth-penetrator weapons (EPWs) with a depth of penetration of 3 meters capture most of the advantage associated with the coupling of ground shock.”

Given that the length of the B61-12 is about three-and-a-half meters, and that the Sandia video shows the bomb disappearing completely beneath the surface of the Nevada desert, it appears the B61-12 will be able to achieve enhanced ground-shock coupling against underground targets in soil. We know that the B61-12 is designed to have four selectable explosive yields: 0.3 kilotons (kt), 1.5 kt, 10 kt and 50 kt. Therefore, given the National Academies’ finding, the maximum destructive potential of the B61-12 against underground targets is equivalent to the capability of a surface-burst weapon with a yield of 750 kt to 1,250 kt.

One of the bombs the Pentagon plans to retire after the B61-12 is deployed is the B83-1, which has a maximum yield of 1,200 kt.

Even at the lowest selective yield setting of only 0.3 kt, the ground-shock coupling of a B61-12 exploding a few meters underground would be equivalent to a surface-burst weapon with a yield of 4.5 kt to 7.5 kt.  Continue reading

North Korea’s Fourth Nuclear Test: What Does it Mean?

PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - MARCH 26: A North Korean soldier looks through binoculars to survey across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas March 26 2003 at Panmunjom, South Korea. North Korea pulled out of regular military meetings with U.S.-led United Nations Command March 26, 2003. North Korea accuses the U.S. of preparing for an invasion by holding military exercises with the South Korean army. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

By Charles D. Ferguson

North Korea’s boast on January 5 about having detonated a “hydrogen bomb,” the colloquial name for a thermonuclear explosive, seems highly hyperbolic due to the relatively low estimated explosive yield, as inferred from the reported seismic magnitude of about 4.8 (a small- to moderately-sized event). More important, I think the Korean Central News Agency’s rationale for the test deserves attention and makes logical sense from North Korea’s perspective. That statement was: “This test is a measure for self-defense the D.P.R.K. has taken to firmly protect the sovereignty of the country and the vital right of the nation from the ever-growing nuclear threat and blackmail by the U.S.-led hostile forces and to reliably safeguard the peace on the Korean Peninsula and regional security.” (D.P.R.K. stands for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the official name for North Korea.)

Having been to North Korea twice (November 2000 and November 2011) and having talked to both political and technical people there, I believe that they are sincere when they say that they believe that the United States has a hostile policy toward their country. After all, the Korean War has yet to be officially ended with a peace treaty. The United States and the Republic of Korea (South Korea) conduct annual war games that have appeared threatening to the North while the United States and the ROK say that they perform these military exercises to be prepared to defend against or deter a potential war with North Korea. Clearly, there is more than enough fear on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula.

Aside from posturing and signaling to the United States, South Korea, and Japan, a North Korean claim of a genuine hydrogen bomb (even if it is not yet ready for prime time) is cause for concern from a military standpoint because of the higher explosive yields from such weapons. But almost all of the recent news stories, experts’ analyses, and the statements from the White House and South Korea have discounted this claim.

How Does a Boosted Fission Bomb Work?

Instead, at best, the stories and articles suggest that North Korea may have tested a boosted fission device. Such a device would use a fission chain reaction of fissile material, such as plutonium or highly enriched uranium, to then fuse the heavy hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium, which would have been injected just before detonation into the hollow core of the bomb. While the fusion reaction does somewhat increase the explosive yield, the main purpose of this reaction is to release lots of neutrons that would then cause many additional fission reactions.

Does this mean that the explosive yield of the bomb would be dramatically increased due to these additional fission reactions? The answer is yes, if there was a comparable amount of fissile material, as in a non-boosted fission bomb. But the answer is no, if there was much less fissile material than in a non-boosted fission bomb. In both cases, the overall use of fissile material is much more efficient in a boosted device than in a non-boosted device in that a greater portion or percentage of fissile material is fissioned in a boosted device. This increased efficiency is also due to the fact that the additional neutrons are very high energy and will rapidly cause the additional fission reactions before the bomb blows itself apart within microseconds.

In the case where North Korea does not need to produce a much bigger explosive yield per bomb, but is content with low to moderate yields, it can make much more efficient use of its available fissile material (with a stockpile estimated at a dozen to a few dozen bombs’ worth of material) and have much lower weight bombs. This is the key to understanding why a boosted fission bomb is a serious military concern. It is more apt to fit on ballistic missiles. The lighter the payload (warhead), the farther a ballistic missile with a given amount of thrust can carry the bomb to a target.

From a Military Standpoint: Cause for Concern?

So, in my opinion, a boosted fission bomb is even more cause for immediate concern than a thermonuclear bomb. (A thermonuclear “hydrogen” bomb would have the additional technical complication of a fusion fuel stage ignited by a boosted fission bomb. If North Korea eventually develops a true thermonuclear bomb, this type of bomb could, with further development, also likely be made to fit on a ballistic missile.) A boosted fission bomb alone, however, would mean that North Korea is well on its way to making nuclear bombs that are small enough and lightweight enough to fit on ballistic missiles.

If true, North Korea would have nuclear weapons that would provide real military utility. North Korea would not need high yield nuclear explosives to pose a real military nuclear threat because cities such as Seoul and Tokyo cover wide areas and would thus be easy targets even with relatively inaccurate missiles. But the most important point is that the nuclear weapon has to be light enough to be carried by a missile for a long enough distance to reach these and other targets such as the United States by using a long-range missile. In contrast, if North Korea only had large size and heavy weight nuclear bombs, it would have significant difficulty in delivering such weapons to targets, unless it tried to smuggle these unwieldy bombs into South Korea or Japan.

Setting the Record Straight on Recent Reporting

Obviously, the uncertainty about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is considerable, and we may never fully find out what was really tested a few days ago, despite the planes that the U.S. has been flying near North Korea to detect any leakage of radioactive elements or other physical evidence from the test site.

Nonetheless, I think it is worthwhile to point out that some confusion has been afoot in several news stories. I have read in a number of press reports that there is doubt as to whether North Korea could produce the tritium that would be needed for a boosted fission device. In September of last year, David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini of the Institute for Science and International Security published a report that the 5 MWe gas-graphite reactor at Yongbyon is “not an ideal producer of isotopes, it can be used in this way.” They noted, “As part of the renovation of the reactor, North Korean technicians reportedly installed (or renovated) irradiation channels in the core. These channels would be used to make various types of isotopes, potentially for civilian or military purposes.”[1] They further observed that tritium could be produced in such irradiation channels, although there is not conclusive evidence of this production.

The New York Times further sowed some confusion by solely mentioning that tritium is used for boosting, but neglected to mention deuterium. The deuterium and tritium fusion reaction is the “easiest” fusion reaction to ignite while still very challenging to do.[2] The Times also gave the impression that boosting was just about increasing the explosive yield but did not discuss the important point about boosting the efficient use of fissile material so as to substantially decrease the overall weight of the bomb.

None other than Dr. Hans Bethe, leader of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project and a founder of FAS, stated in a May 28, 1952 memorandum that “by the middle of 1948, [Dr. Edward] Teller had invented the booster, in which a fission bomb initiates a thermonuclear reaction in a moderate volume of a mixture of T [tritium] and D [deuterium], … [and a test in Nevada] demonstrated the practical usefulness of the booster for small-diameter implosion weapons.”[3] Note that “small-diameter” in this context implies that this weapon would be suitable for ballistic missiles.

Just a day before the nuclear test, Joseph Bermudez published an essay for the non-governmental website 38 North (affiliated with the US-Korea Institute at the School for Advanced International Studies) about North Korea’s ballistic missile submarine program. He assessed: “Reports of a North Korean ‘ejection’ test of the Bukkeukseong-1 (Polaris-1, KN-11) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) on December 21, 2015, appear to be supported by new commercial satellite imagery of the Sinpo South Shipyard. This imagery also indicates that despite reports of a failed test in late November 2015 North Korea is continuing to actively pursue its SLBM development program.”[4] A boosted fission device test (if such took place on January 5) would dovetail with the ballistic missile submarine program.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I will conclude by underscoring that the United States will have to work even harder to reassure allies such as Japan and South Korea. Early last year, I wrote a paper that describes how relatively easily South Korea could make nuclear weapons while urging that the United States needs to prevent this from happening. As Prof. Martin Hellman of Stanford University and a member of FAS’s Board of Experts has written in a recent blog: “As distasteful as the Kim Jong-un regime is, we need to learn how to live with it, rather than continue vainly trying to make it collapse. As Dr. [Siegfried] Hecker [former Director of Los Alamos National Laboratory] points out, that latter approach has given us an unstable nation with a nuclear arsenal. Insanity has been defined as repeating the same mistake over and over again, but expecting a different outcome. Isn’t it time we tried a new experiment?”

[1] David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, “Update on North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Site,” Institute for Science and International Security, Imagery Brief, September 15, 2015, http://www.isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/Update_on_North_Koreas_Yongbyon_Nuclear_Site_September15_2015_Final.pdf

[2] “Did North Korea Detonate a Hydrogen Bomb? Here’s What We Know,” New York Times, January 6, 2016.

[3] Hans A. Bethe, “Memorandum on the History of Thermonuclear Program,” May 28. 1952, (Assembled on 5/12/90 from 3 different versions by Chuck Hansen, Editor, Swords of Armageddon), available at http://www.fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/nuclear/bethe-52.htm

[4] Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., “North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Submarine Program: Full Steam Ahead,” 38 North, January 5, 2016, http://38north.org/2016/01/sinpo010516/

Forget LRSO; JASSM-ER Can Do The Job

By Hans M. Kristensen

Early next year the Obama administration, with eager backing from hardliners in Congress, is expected to commit the U.S. taxpayers to a bill of $20 billion to $30 billion for a new nuclear weapon the United States doesn’t need: the Long-Range Standoff (LRSO) air-launched cruise missile.

The new nuclear cruise missile will not be able to threaten targets that cannot be threatened with other existing nuclear weapons. And the Air Force is fielding thousands of new conventional cruise missiles that provide all the standoff capability needed to keep bombers out of harms way, shoot holes in enemy air-defenses, and destroy fixed and mobile soft, medium and hard targets with high accuracy – the same missions defense officials say the LRSO is needed for.

But cool-headed thinking about defense needs and priorities has flown out the window. Instead the Obama administration appears to have been seduced (or sedated) by an army of lobbyists from the defense industry, nuclear laboratories, the Air Force, U.S. Strategic Command, defense hawks in Congressional committees, and academic Cold Warriors, who all have financial, institutional, career, or political interests in getting approval of the new nuclear cruise missile.

LRSO proponents argue for the new nuclear cruise missile as if we were back in the late-1970s when there were no long-range, highly accurate conventional cruise missiles. But that situation has changed so dramatically over the past three decades that advanced conventional weapons have now eroded the need for a nuclear cruise missile.

That reality presents President Obama with a unique opportunity: because the new nuclear cruise missile is redundant for deterrence and unnecessary for warfighting requirements, it is the first opportunity for the administration to do what the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Review, 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, and 2013 Nuclear Employment Strategy all called for: use advanced conventional weapons to reduce the role of and reliance on nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy. Continue reading

General Cartwright Confirms B61-12 Bomb “Could Be More Useable”

By Hans M. Kristensen

General James Cartwright, the former commander of U.S. Strategic Command and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed in an interview with PBS Newshour that the increased accuracy of the new guided B61-12 nuclear bomb could make the weapon “more useable” to the president or national-security making process.

GEN. JAMES CARTWRIGHT (RET.), Former Commander, U.S. Strategic Command: If I can drive down the yield, drive down, therefore, the likelihood of fallout, et cetera, does that make it more usable in the eyes of some — some president or national security decision-making process? And the answer is, it likely could be more usable.

Cartwright’s confirmation follows General Norton Schwartz, the former U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff, who in 2014 assessed that the increased accuracy would have implications for how the military thinks about using the B61. “Without a doubt. Improved accuracy and lower yield is a desired military capability. Without a question,” he said.

In an article in 2011 I first described the potential effects the increased accuracy provided by the new guided tail kit and the option to select lower yields in nuclear strike could have for nuclear planning and the perception of how useable nuclear weapons are. I also discuss this in an interview on the PBS Newshour program.

In contrast to the enhanced military capabilities offered by the increased accuracy of the B61-12, and its potential impact on nuclear planning confirmed by generals Cartwright and Schwartz, it is U.S. nuclear policy that nuclear weapons “Life Extension Programs…will not support new military missions or provide for new military capabilities,” as stated in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review Report.

The effect of the B61-12 modernization will be most dramatic in Europe where less accurate older B61s are currently deployed at six bases in five countries for delivery by older aircraft. The first B61-12 is scheduled to roll off the assembly line in 2020 and enter the stockpile in 2024 after which some of the estimated 480 bombs to be built and, under current policy, would be deployed to Europe for deliver by the new F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation fighter-bomber and (for a while) older aircraft.

For background information, see:

This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

LRSO: The Nuclear Cruise Missile Mission

By Hans M. Kristensen

[Updated January 26, 2016] In an op-ed in the Washington Post, William Perry and Andy Weber last week called for canceling the Air Force’s new nuclear air-launched cruise missile.

The op-ed challenged what many see as an important component of the modernization of the U.S. nuclear triad of strategic weapons and a central element of U.S. nuclear strategy.

The recommendation to cancel the new cruise missile – known as the LRSO for Long-Range Standoff weapon – is all the more noteworthy because it comes from William Perry, known to some as “ALCM Bill,” who was secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997, and as President Carter’s undersecretary of defense for research and engineering in the late-1970s and early-1980s was in charge of developing the nuclear air-launched cruise missile the LRSO is intended to replace.

And his co-author, Andy Weber, was assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs from 2009 to 2014, during which he served as director of the Nuclear Weapons Council for five-plus years – the very time period the plans to build the LRSO emerged [note: the need to replace the ALCM was decided by DOD during the Bush administration in 2007].

Obviously, Perry and Weber are not impressed by the arguments presented by the Air Force, STRATCOM, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the nuclear laboratories, defense hawks in Congress, and an army or former defense officials and contractors for why the United States should spend $15 billion to $20 billion on a new nuclear cruise missile.

Those arguments seem to have evolved very little since the 1970s. A survey of statements made by defense officials over the past few years for why the LRSO is needed reveals a concoction of justifications ranging from good-old warfighting scenarios of using nuclear weapons to blast holes in enemy air defenses to “the old missile is getting old, therefore we need a new one.”  Continue reading

US Drops Below New START Warhead Limit For The First Time

By Hans M. Kristensen

The number of U.S. strategic warheads counted as “deployed” under the New START Treaty has dropped below the treaty’s limit of 1,550 warheads for the first time since the treaty entered into force in February 2011 – a reduction of 263 warheads over four and a half years.

Russia, by contrast, has increased its deployed warheads and now has more strategic warheads counted as deployed under the treaty than in 2011 – up 111 warheads.

Similarly, while the United States has reduced its number of deployed strategic launchers (missiles and bombers) counted by the treaty by 120, Russia has increased its number of deployed launchers by five in the same period. Yet the United States still has more launchers deployed than allowed by the treaty (by 2018) while Russia has been well below the limit since before the treaty entered into force in 2011.

NewSTARTSep2015

These two apparently contradictory developments do not mean that the United States is falling behind and Russia is building up. Both countries are expected to adjust their forces to comply with the treaty limits by 2018.

Rather, the differences are due to different histories and structures of the two countries’ strategic nuclear force postures as well as to fluctuations in the number of weapons that are deployed at any given time.  Continue reading

Upgrades At US Nuclear Bases In Europe Acknowledge Security Risk

By Hans M. Kristensen

Security upgrades underway at U.S. Air Force bases in Europe indicate that nuclear weapons deployed in Europe have been stored under unsafe conditions for more than two decades.

Commercial satellite images show work underway at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey and Aviano Air Base in Italy. The upgrades are intended to increase the physical protection of nuclear weapons stored at the two U.S. Air Force Bases.

The upgrades indirectly acknowledge that security at U.S. nuclear weapons storage sites in Europe has been inadequate for more than two decades.

And the decision to upgrade nuclear security perimeters at the two U.S. bases strongly implies that security at the other four European host bases must now be characterized as inadequate.

Security challenges at Incirlik AB are unique in NATO’s nuclear posture because the base is located only 110 kilometers (68 miles) from war-torn Syria and because of an ongoing armed conflict within Turkey between the Turkish authorities and Kurdish militants. The wisdom of deploying NATO’s largest nuclear weapons stockpile in such a volatile region seems questionable. (UPDATE: Pentagon orders “voluntary departure” of 900 family members of U.S. personnel stationed at Incirlik.) Continue reading

US Nuclear Weapons Base In Italy Eyed By Alleged Terrorists

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Italian security forces practice protection of US nuclear weapons at Ghedi Air Base in 2014.

By Hans M. Kristensen

Two suspected terrorists arrested by the Italian police allegedly were planning an attack against the nuclear weapons base at Ghedi.

The base stores 20 US B61 nuclear bombs earmarked for delivery by Italian PA-200 Tornado fighter-bombers in war. Nuclear security and strike exercises were conducted at the base in 2014. During peacetime the bombs are under the custody of the US Air Force 704th Munitions Support Squadron (MUNSS), a 130-personnel strong units at Ghedi Air Base.

The Italian police said at a press conference today that the two men in their conversations “were referring to several targets, particularly the Ghedi military base” near Brescia in northern Italy.

Ghedi Air Base is one of several national air bases in Europe that a US Air Force investigation in 2008 concluded did not meet US security standards for nuclear weapons storage. Since then, the Pentagon and NATO have spent tens of millions of dollars and are planning to spend more to improve security at the nuclear weapons bases in Europe.

There are currently approximately 180 US B61 bombs deployed in Europe at six bases in five NATO countries: Belgium (Kleine Brogel AB), Germany (Buchel AB), Italy (Aviano AB and Ghedi AB), the Netherlands (Volkel AB), and Turkey (Incirlik AB).

Over the next decade, the B61s in Europe will be modernized and, when delivered by the new F-35A fighter-bomber, turned into a guided nuclear bomb (B61-12) with greater accuracy than the B61s currently deployed in Europe. Aircraft integration of the B61-12 has already started.

Read also:

Italy’s Nuclear Anniversary: Fake Reassurance For a King’s Ransom

B61 LEP: Increasing NATO Nuclear Capability and Precision Low-Yield Strikes

This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

Iran Nuclear Deal: What’s Next?

By Muhammad Umar,

On July 14, 2015, after more than a decade of negotiations to ensure Iran only use its nuclear program for peaceful purposes, Iran and the P5+1 (US, UK, Russia, China, France + Germany) have finally agreed on a nuclear deal aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

Iran has essentially agreed to freeze their nuclear program for a period of ten years, as in there will be no new nuclear projects or research related to advanced enrichment processes. In exchange the West has agreed to lift crippling economic sanctions on Iran that have devastated the country for over a decade.

President Barack Obama said this deal is based on “verification” and not trust. This means that the sanctions will only be lifted after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified that Iran has fulfilled the requirements of the deal. Sanctions can be put back in place if Iran violates the deal in any way.

All though the details of the final agreement have not yet been released, based on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed to in April, some of the key parameters the IAEA will be responsible for verifying are that Iran has reduced the number of centrifuges currently in operation from 19,000 to 6,140, and does not enrich uranium over 3.67 percent for at least 15 years. The IAEA will also verify that Iran has reduced its current stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) from ~10,000 kg to 300 kg and does not build any new enrichment facilities. According to the New York Times, most of the LEU will be shipped to Russia for storage. Iran will only receive relief in sanctions if it verifiably abides by its commitments.

Even after the period of limitations on Iran’s nuclear program ends, it will remain a party to the NPT, its adherence to the Additional Protocol will be permanent, and it will maintain its transparency obligations.

The President must now submit the final agreement to the US Congress for a review. Once submitted, the Congress will have 60 days to review the agreement. There is no doubt that there will be plenty of folks in Congress who will challenge the agreement. Most of their concerns will be unwarranted because they lack a basic understanding of the technical details of the agreement.

The confusion for those opposing the deal on technical grounds is simple to understand. Iran had two paths to the bomb. Path one involved enriching uranium by using centrifuges, and path two involved using reactors to produce plutonium. The confusion is that if Iran is still allowed to have enriched uranium, and keep centrifuges in operation, will it not enable them to build the bomb?

The fact is that Iran will not have the number of centrifuges required to enrich weapons grade uranium. It will only enrich uranium to 3.7 percent and has a cap on its stockpile at 300 kilograms, which is inadequate for bomb making.

Again, the purpose of the deal is to allow greater access to the IAEA and their team of inspectors. They will verify that Iran complies with the agreement and in exchange sanctions will be lifted.

Congress does not have to approve the deal but can propose legislation that blocks the execution of the deal. In a public address, the President vowed to “veto any legislation that prevents the successful implementation of the deal.”

The deal will undergo a similar review process in Tehran, but because it has the support of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameeni, there will be no objection.

Those opposing the deal in the United States fail to understand that although the deal is only valid for 10 to 15 years, the safeguards being put in place are permanent. Making it impossible for Iran to secretly develop a nuclear weapon.

This deal has potentially laid down a blueprint for future nuclear negotiations with countries like North Korea. Once the deal is implemented, it will serve as a testament for diplomacy. It is definitely a welcome change from the experience of failed military action in Iraq, a mess we cannot seem to get out of to this day.

A stable Iran with a strong economy will not only benefit the region but the entire world. The media as well as Congress should keep this fact in mind as they begin to review the details of the final deal.

This is a tremendous victory for the West as well as Iran. This deal has strengthened the non-proliferation regime, and has proven the efficacy of diplomacy.

The writer is a visiting scholar at the Federation of American Scientists. He tweets @umarwrites.

Obama Administration Releases New Nuclear Warhead Numbers

By Hans M. Kristensen

In a speech to the Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in New York earlier today, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry disclosed new information about the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile.

Updated Stockpile Numbers

First, Kerry updated the DOD nuclear stockpile history by declaring that the stockpile as of September 2014 included 4,717 nuclear warheads. That is a reduction of 87 warheads since September 2013, when the DOD stockpile included 4,804 warheads, or a reduction of about 500 warheads retired since President Obama took office in January 2009.

The September 2014 number of 4,717 warheads is 43 warheads off the estimate we made in our latest FAS Nuclear Notebook in March this year.

Disclosure of Dismantlement Queue

Second, Kerry also announced a new number we have never seen in public before: the official number of retired nuclear warheads in line for dismantlement. As of September 2014, the United States had approximately 2,500 additional warheads that have been retired (but are still relatively intact) and awaiting dismantlement.

The number of “approximately 2,500” retired warheads awaiting dismantlement is close to the 2,340 warheads we estimated in the FAS Nuclear Notebook in March 2015.

Increasing Warhead Dismantlements

Kerry also announced that the administration “will seek to accelerate the dismantlement of retired nuclear warheads by 20 percent.”

“Over the last 20 years alone, we have dismantled 10,251 warheads,” Kerry announced.

This updates the count of 9,952 dismantled warheads from the 2014 disclosure, which means that the administration between September 2013 and September 2014 dismantled 299 retired warheads.

Under current plans, of the “approximately 2,500” warheads in the dismantlement queue, the ones that were retired through (September) 2009 will be dismantled by 2022. Additional warheads retired during the past five years will take longer.

How the administration will accelerate dismantlement remains to be seen. The FY2016 budget request for NNSA pretty much flatlines funding for weapons dismantlement and disposition through 2020. In the same period, the administration plans to complete production of the W76-1 warhead, begin production of the B61-12, and carry out refurbishments of four other warheads. If the administration wanted to dismantle all “approximately 2,500” retired warheads by 2022 (including those warheads retired after 2009), it would have to dismantle about 312 warheads per year – a rate of only 13 more than it dismantled in 2014. So this can probably be done with existing capacity.

Implications

Secretary Kerry’s speech is an important diplomatic gesture that will help the United States make its case at the NPT review conference that it is living up to its obligations under the treaty. Some will agree, others will not. The nuclear-weapon states are in a tough spot at the NPT because there are currently no negotiations underway for additional reductions; because the New START Treaty, although beneficial, is modest; and because the nuclear-weapon states are reaffirming the importance of nuclear weapons and modernizing their nuclear arsenals as if they plan to keep nuclear weapons indefinitely (see here for worldwide status of nuclear arsenals).

And the disclosure is a surprise. As recently as a few weeks ago, White House officials said privately that the United States would not be releasing updated nuclear warhead numbers at the NPT conference. Apparently, the leadership decided last minute to do so anyway. [Update: another White House official says the release was cleared late but that it had been the plan to release some numbers all along.]

The roughly 500 warheads cut from the stockpile by the Obama administration is modest and a disappointing performance by a president that has spoken so much about reducing the numbers and role of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, the political reality has been an arms control policy squeezed between a dismissive Russian president and an arms control-hostile U.S. Congress.

In addition to updating the stockpile history, the most important part of the initiative is the disclosure of the number of weapons awaiting dismantlement. This is an important new transparency initiative by the administration that was not included in the 2010 or 2014 stockpile transparency initiatives. Disclosing dismantlement numbers helps dispel rumors that the United States is hiding a secret stash of nuclear warheads and enables the United States to demonstrate actual dismantlement progress.

And, besides, why would the administration not want to disclose to the NPT conference how many warheads it is actually working on dismantling? This can only help the United States at the NPT review conference.

There will be a few opponents of the transparency initiative. Since they can’t really say this harms U.S. national security, their primary argument will be that other nuclear-armed states have so far not response in kind.

Russia and China have not made public disclosures of their nuclear warhead inventories. Britain and France has said a little on a few occasions about their total inventories and (in the case of Britain) how many warheads are operationally available or deployed, but not disclosed the histories of stockpiles or dismantlement. And the other nuclear-armed states that are outside the NPT (India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan) have not said anything at all.

But this is a work in progress. It will take a long time to persuade other nuclear-armed states to become more transparent with basic information about nuclear arsenals. But seeing that it can be done without damaging national security and at the same time helping the NPT process is important to cut through old-fashioned excessive nuclear secrecy and increase nuclear transparency. Hat tip to the Obama administration.

This publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.